“What one sees with one’s own eyes is mixed up with the question of what someone else sees.”
—Darian Leader, Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing
Published in 1993, “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace’s essay about the now pretty much bygone age of cable TV, reads today as a kind of critique avant la lettre of the culture that’s since been spawned by the digital streaming services—services that allow us to take charge of what gets channelled into our homes such that we need hear only what we want to hear and see only what we want to see. At the time, the particular target of Wallace’s essay was his own breed, American writers of fiction, whose art he thought at risk of TV’s malign influence. As the ultimate window on to American normality, he warned, or what “Americans want to regard as normal,” TV looks like a godsend “for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” Yet the risk for these professional oglers is that they could lose sight of reality thanks to the ease and comfort of its televisual substitution—a risk, he added, that was by no means theirs alone. If it’s true that the average American watches TV for six hours a day then the screen must be a dark mirror of the democratic ideal itself. Wallace didn’t, by this, intend to lambast arthouse TV such as Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Although the lower-brow TV he had in mind did in some ways resemble that sophisticated modernist bend towards formal self-consciousness. The TV you gleefully derided along with your like-minded friends had not only metabolized your own critiques of it, it was already speaking to you in the register of your own mockery. TV was practically begging you to hate-watch it in fact; and it was doing so long before social media’s algorithms had figured out that it’s the pleasure of hating that gets you hailed, homogenized and hooked. Bergman, after all, isn’t the only one to have considered the small screen an ideal match for marriage. Amongst the family-centered sitcoms Wallace mentions are such specimens as the Cosby Show or Married…with Children. Marriage and TV, in other words, may have enjoyed such a binding and lasting relationship because it’s those two hitched together that can provide us with the most compelling picture of normality. As such, they can also help to hitch together a TV-watching populace that knows exactly what to say and how to say it in the “cynical, irreverent, ironic” tone that Wallace deems the method, mood and meaning of the screen age. Or the TV screen age at any rate.
Few things are more slippery than endeavoring to look at looking.
That said, binding the populace with a vision of normality was much easier to do back in our analogue days when we were all forced to watch what was on at the time it was scheduled, whereas living as we do now, in the solipsistic and siloed future Wallace’s essay predicted, we can all decide for ourselves what’s on. Where couples used to fight, in their most eloquent of marital disputes, over the remote control, peace has since prevailed over home entertainment as every household member can reach for earphones and laptops and turn on whatever it is that turns them on. Not, though, at my address. Here we do still continue to vie for the remote control, our quarrels notwithstanding, because we still feel the need of shared televisual experience as pretty much the only zone of interaction we have each day that doesn’t feel like a management meeting. This TV time, we tell our children whenever they get out of bed to interrupt us, is special, sacred, adult time. Once we’ve watched over them, we get to watch the next episode of our box set. We do this so religiously, in fact, that if either of us was to jump ahead and watch that next episode alone, it would reasonably be declared, within the terms of our current contract, an act of infidelity. So is this what middle age looks like, or looks like for us? We look forward to looking forward together and there are few things we look forward to quite as much. Spoken aloud, that doesn’t sound great. Have we then consigned our own romance to the past, or delegated all further romancing to the actors we watch on television? Not necessarily, I tell myself. Wasting time after all, pace Cavell, is what lovers do in the belief that no time spent together could really be wasted. And there’s no time wasted like TV time. Physical intimacy aside, could any time spent together be more intimate? Yes, that’s what I tell myself. But we do, it’s true, my husband probably more than me, have reservations about our TV addiction. And I sometimes wonder what we might really be looking for when we’re looking forward to the box. Observing that one starts looking for things only once one thinks they’re lost, the psychoanalyst Darian Leader has suggested this might tell us something about looking per se. Are we always looking for what we’ve lost? And if so, when we’re distracted by our laptop or phone or TV could that suggest that we’ve even lost a sense of what we’ve lost, or what it is we imagine we’re looking for? What are we seeking when we’re staring at our screens? Is it something different when we watch our screens alone as opposed to together?
Tracing the ways we look at each other back to childhood and the looks first exchanged at home, Leader notes that Freud’s early work on scopophilia (the pleasure in looking) is linked to a sexual curiosity aroused by the veiling of parts of the body. Viewed thus, looking becomes part of an effort to reveal what’s been hidden in order to complete the object—so it’s infused as well with an incipient form of distorted memory or nostalgia since its veiling is what also allows the looker to imagine the object had once been satisfyingly whole. In an earlier chapter I associated this veiling of the body, or of sex, with the wedding veil, and with the claim that marriage and clothing appeared at the moment when something—call it paradise—feels lost. I suggested that via this “civilizing” move, the effort to socialize the sexual simultaneously sexualizes the social. Once veiled, that is, interest gets displaced on to the veil itself, whose mystery is now rendered both physical and metaphysical. For which reason, says Leader, we needn’t take the sex organs in this story too literally. After the veil has been added to sex, sex seems to stand for something else—something “that eludes visualization.” But what is it that, when we’re looking, we can’t seem to see? One answer, says Leader, is that we can’t see our own act of seeing. Which is true, I’m finding, even intellectually. Few things are more slippery than endeavoring to look at looking. You really feel yourself going around the houses as every look sends you off looking somewhere else. Although it’s true in the mirror too, of course, that we can’t focus both our eyes on both our eyes, “we can only imagine the way someone else is looking at us”—as if someone else possessed the power to complete us.
If it’s “someone else looking at us” who we fantasize has such power, then this someone else must also, presumably, possess the power to dismantle us by the same means. Face to face may well be a portal to the ethical relation, as in Levinas’s philosophy, but it can equally awaken the anxiety that a more hostile or even aggressive confrontation could be taking shape. Albeit how we feel about being looked at is also likely to have its own specific history; a history that probably relates to the looks we exchanged with the caregiver who first watched over us. While being watched might be viewed by some as an essentially benevolent, beholding act, therefore, it might, by the same token, also recall in us a sense of our underlying powerlessness and utter dependency. There are those for whom it is only ever persecutory to feel oneself the object of another’s gaze.
Leader makes a subtle distinction between the act of looking (e.g. at art) and the act of watching (e.g. TV). Specifically, he notes that when we’re watching rather than looking, we often correlate our watching with compulsive snacking. We might watch a movie in the cinema while stuffing our mouths with popcorn, for instance. And this, he intimates, could be a sign of what, when we’re watching rather than looking, we’re unconsciously looking for, e.g. a psychical return to the fantasy of the bountiful breast; to that time when we were being fed and looked at simultaneously in what seemed to promise a continuous source of care, pleasure and gratification. To want to watch rather than look thus takes us back to that moment when we had her exactly where we wanted her; or when we perceived in the other’s gaze the look that looked after us.
Such a memory, however, were we really to have it, would likely, for Freud, be considered a “screen memory,” as in the kind of memory we invoke to calm ourselves about who we are and what our histories contain in order to block the experiences we cannot bear to recall, and which we cannot visualize either. With screen memories, Freud explained, “the essential elements of an experience are represented in memory by the inessential elements of the same experience.” So if it’s infantile pleasures and gratifications we’re seeking when we’re watching our TV screens—during our “adult” time—then what we may simultaneously be seeking to evade with our watching could be that which gets more readily aroused by our looking. For it’s with looking that we can better sense how the object of our gaze has her own appetites, demands and desires; as if she’s not merely looking after us, but also looking at us. As such, it’s looking that we may wish to avoid, since “nothing prepares us for when the object looks back.” If we turn out to be the sort of incurable oglers who prefer to observe others unobserved, therefore, that may be because we’ve been driven by our desire to regain mastery over what first disturbed or dispossessed us in our earliest experiences of looking.
As a bid for mastery, however, ogling is a pretty limiting one. This is what Wallace intuited when he warned that watching people on TV as a way of resolving anxieties about being watched is liable to damage both artists and the art they’re capable of producing. For you view a screen, on this reading, precisely in order to be screened from view—and lest negative consequences ensue should your gaze be caught in flagrante. It’s not for nothing, for instance, that the most widely recycled internet meme, which gets enlisted to comment on just about anything that hooks the passing attention of a fickle world, is the one where a guy walking along a high street with his girlfriend has just turned his head, his face all wide-eyed and wowed, at the sight of another woman’s ass. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is left tugging on his sleeve, reminding him whose ass he’s supposed to be thinking about. Clearly she’s offended. And not only, one assumes, because he forgets her the moment another woman catches his eye, but equally because he doesn’t even bother to pretend otherwise—he doesn’t keep up the public performance of two people looking forward in the same direction. Spotting that other woman’s backside, it’s as if he’s decided he can’t not see that. Seeing him spot the other woman, it’s as if she’s discovered she can’t unsee that. But while what he saw will likely vanish from his mind just as quickly as it flashed into view, what she saw might never leave her. Such is the impact, very often, of glimpsing even a flicker of amorous betrayal. Although the irony, of course, is that a meme inviting us to identify, internet Puritans that we are, with the outraged girlfriend, reveals, by our use of it, who it is we perhaps really are—her faithless and easily distracted lover.
The critical question, however, is what that meme couple will do now that the different directions of their gaze have been witnessed. Are they off to make good on that other woman’s ass by seeing it as, for instance, the opportunity for an open- minded and exploratory conversation about what they each want from or feel frustrated about in their own relationship? Or by going home and, say, watching porn together. Though if even TV is becoming an increasingly solitary affair, then porn, I’d guess, is still mostly what people, in or out of couples, watch alone. Might that be what adult entertainment even implies? That the adult is someone looking to escape from the shared world of relationships and responsibilities—the world in which they feel, no less than children feel, that their every move is watched—so as to enter the zone of their special, sacred me-time.
We’ve been driven by our desire to regain mastery over what first disturbed or dispossessed us in our earliest experiences of looking.
Writing in the New York Times in the post #metoo heat of public and private arguments about sex, gender, power and abuse, the film critic Wesley Morris reflected on the watching habits of the on-demand populace. He was struck, he said, by “the two cultural planets these people seemed to be coming from…romantic comedy and porn.” Yet despite plenty of research into the warping effects of misogynistic pornography on the development of young boys and girls, there’s been little interest in exploring the impact of the romcom as “an entire genre about people coming together, as opposed to one that prefers your coming alone.” As a jumping-off point into adulthood, therefore, didn’t that suggest a more socially binding erotics of entertainment? Albeit the romcom’s real value could easily be missed by those tempted to treat the genre derisively as merely chick flicks, thus failing to acknowledge how romantic comedies have historically encouraged diverse audiences to watch them together, “everybody absorbing images of what it looked like to engage with each other.”
Not that watching things together always means engaging with each other. In lockdown, as Zadie Smith put it in a passage quoted before, married men, confronted with the infinite reality of wives they can no longer even exchange mentally “for a strange girl walking down the street,” are accosted by the awful nearness of having to see each other’s faces exclusively. “The only relief,” she continues, “is two faces facing forward, towards the screen.” Imagine lockdown, in other words, but without Netflix. Problem is, in my household, my husband has very strong views about Netflix. For all we may be a couple of TV addicts, I’m the real addict, which has led to some occasional strife between us. As a filmmaker, my husband has very strong views in general about what we watch, and where we watch it, and when, and how. His views are so strong on these matters that he even once wrote an opinion piece about them for the Guardian. “If you’re anything like me,” it began, “what shared emotional life you might still have is mostly achieved by mainlining shows on a streaming service with your loved one perched on the sofa nearby. When I say loved one, I mean co-watcher.” Since that loved one/co-watcher is me, I can vouch for the fact that he’s not knocking the streaming platforms—because it’s true that we depend on them, much as all internetted beings depend on such shows to, in his words, “dramatize the bits of our relationships we’re too exhausted to undergo the drama of ourselves.” But when he then comes out against bingeing such series the way cinemagoers binge popcorn, I can vouch for that too. For my husband—and this has been a point of contention between us—wants us not only to watch things together, he also wants us to look at things together. And he wants this, he sometimes tells me, for the sake of our marriage. Although to save our marriage by such a method, he acknowledges, we must also risk it. Contrasting episodic TV, whose pleasure is “precisely because it confirms our sense of ourselves,” to the languishing art of cinema, aka “the part of enjoyment that’s closer to pain,” as a general indicator, he explains, the latter “is more likely to lead to you and your partner sleeping in separate rooms.” Which, naturally, I can also vouch for.
Although I’m generally conscious of the splitting of our collective vision during the screening itself, normally we only row once it’s over. This is seldom an issue when we’re making our way through a box set. Then I don’t bother much to look at my spouse because I don’t doubt what he ’s thinking. It’s when we watch art films that I’m less sure. I notice myself stealing glances in his direction. Why do those glances feel stolen? Why does the dignified practice of watching art cinema draw my attention to what’s furtive, transgressive, even guilty in the art of looking? Is it because, as Leader intimates, there ’s “a dimension of theft always present in art?” The object accorded the status of “artwork” appears as if it’s been highjacked from common sense reality and resituated—”the key is that it finds itself in a new place”—such that we not only see the object differently, but recognize too how its removal from where we normally picture it could precipitate the tumbling of all the norms by which we live.
Excerpted from On Marriage by Devorah Baum, to be published October 24, 2023 by Yale University Press. Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.